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Diet Implications of Processed Meats and Cancer Risk

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In May 2013, a study of the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and the University of Southern California suggested a link between eating processed meats and cancer risk.The study followed 190,000 people ages 45-75 for seven years.They found that people who ate the most processed meats had a 67% higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least amount of processed meats.

On October 26, 2015, the World Health Organization and others reported that processed meat has been classified as a “definite” cause of cancer and that red meat is a “probable” cause.The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) indicated that eating processed meats such as ham, salami, hot dogs, bologna, sausages, bacon, and pepperoni raises the risk of colon cancer.The World Health Organization (WHO) did not offer any specific guidelines on red meat consumption.But its conclusions support the recommendations made by Mayo clinic and others in that we should discourage the consumption of red meat and processed meats.Red meat is beef, veal, pork, lamb and mutton.Red meat is listed as probably carcinogenic since it has been linked to higher incidents of colon cancer as well as pancreatic and prostate cancers.

Classification: Group 1 Carcinogen:Definite cause of cancer- Processed meats.This is in the same group as smoking cigarettes.These processed meats include sausages, bacon, ham, salami and cold cuts, etc.

Classification:Group 2A Carcinogen:Probably causes cancer- Red meats.This is beef, veal, pork and lamb.

The American Cancer Society noted that colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer among men and women in the United States.The Cancer Society reported that this report is an important step in helping people make more healthful dietary choices.The American Cancer Society’s most recent nutrition and physical activity guidelines emphasize choosing fish, poultry, or beans as alternatives to eating processed meat and red meats.For those who eat red meat or processed meats, they recommended that they choose lean cuts and smaller portion sizes.

Manufacturers add nitrates and nitrites to foods such as cured sandwich meats, bacon, salami, bologna, sausages to give them their reddish color and to prolong their shelf life.Both nitrates and nitrites can form nitrosamines in the body, which can increase your risk of developing cancer.Sodium or potassium nitrates and nitrites preserve the meats color and prevents the fat from going rancid and helps to keep bacteria from forming.Processed meat goes through transformation of salting, curing, fermentation, smoking and other processes to enhance the flavor and improve preservation of the meat.The concentration of nitrates and nitrites is generally limited to 200 parts per million (ppm) or lower.They are considered irreplaceable in the prevention of botulinum poisoning from consumption of cured dry sausages by preventing spore germination.Nitrosamines tend to form when the meats are cooked at high temperatures.

Suggestions of how to keep nitrates and nitrites out of your diet?

  1. Minimize your consumption of processed and cured meats such as brats, hot dogs, sausages, cold cuts, ham and bacon.
  2. Check labels carefully for these ingredients.
  3. Eat organic foods.Synthetic nitrates and nitrites are not allowed as a preservative in organically packaged foods and meats.
  4. Eat a diet high in antioxidants such as Vitamin C.Consuming foods high in antioxidants can reduce the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamines.
  5. If you eat processed meats, don’t cook them at high temperatures.Grilling or BBQ can create the chemicals in the meat which increases your risk of cancer.

Tobacco Vs. Meat—What is the Risk?

The evidence that processed meats causes cancer is as strong as the evidence for tobacco smoking.However, the risk for tobacco is much higher.

86% of lung cancer is caused by tobacco smoking; 21% of colon cancer is caused by eating processed meats

What does this all mean for you and your overall diet?

As we have mentioned, healthy living is all about moderation.Smoking tobacco is always bad for you!We live in Wisconsin and one of our favorite traditions is to have a Wisconsin brat several times each Summer!Eating bacon or ham on occasion is also fine.The World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating no more than 16 ounces of red meat and/or processed meat each week.To understand a serving size of 3 ounces, this is about the size of a deck of playing cards.In other words, have no more than 5 servings of either red meat or processed meats each week.Instead, have chicken, fish, eggs, beans and nuts.

Nancy recommends moderation in eating processed meats and red meats.  One serving of processed meats once per week or every other week is Nancy's recommendation.

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